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NATO's Strategic Concept: To Defend Everywhere Is to Defend Nowhere

After carrying out a number of difficult military operations over the last ten years and weathering internal, divisive debates over its central strategic mission as a result, NATO has begun to question its objectives and role in the world. Consequently, at the NATO Summit in Strasbourg-Kehl last spring, President Obama and the other leaders directed NATO’s Secretary General to prepare a new Strategic Concept for the Alliance, deliverable at the November 2010 summit.

To support the development of this document, the Secretary General called together an international Group of Experts (GoE) chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The NATO Secretary General tasked the Group with drafting a new concept of the Alliance that would provide “a sound transatlantic consensus on NATO’s roles and missions and on its strategy to deal with security challenges….”

After eight months of conferences and consultations, the much-anticipated Strategic Concept paper was submitted to the Secretary General on May 17. This ambitious, “feel-good” document recognizes (just as the two previous Strategic Concept papers did) that the global security environment has changed since the Cold War. Unfortunately, just like its two predecessors, the current paper focuses on conducting an ambitious list of nice-to-do security activities that, in reality, are collectively unfeasible to accomplish.

In the section entitled "Vision and Purpose," the GoE states that NATO should have twin imperatives (interestingly, the word "purpose" does not show up anywhere in this section): “to provide ‘assured security’ for all its members and ‘dynamic engagement’ beyond the treaty area to minimize threats.” Like everything in NATO, words mean everything. What does "assured security" mean? What does "dynamic engagement" mean? Without a commonly accepted definition, the rest of the documents are built on a foundation of sand. The paper goes on to state that, to achieve these "imperatives," the alliance must “summon the resources needed to back its obligations with capabilities so that the ‘full range’ of threats to its security are not only contained but also defeated or deterred.” Again, the phrase "full range" is undefined, yet suggests that the alliance should be able to do everything in the security realm.

To be clear, the GoE appears to be advocating for NATO to amend its purpose to include providing "assured security" to "contain, defeat, and deter" the "full range" of threats. Much like the idea of world peace, this sounds worthwhile but in practice is unattainable.

Here’s the rub: the GoE points to threats that are largely unconventional (terrorism, climate change, cyber attack, energy surety, etc), many of which are not the purviews of a military-political alliance. Furthermore, the capabilities—military or otherwise—needed to begin to address these threats are largely not present in the alliance and would be expensive to procure. In fact, many of the alliance’s recent and most divisive internal debates have focused on: a) which security issue to address (e.g., stability operations in Afghanistan); b) determining the (new) capabilities required to address them; and c) getting member nations to provide them.

However, for the sake of argument, let us say that NATO’s members do agree that they need to provide "assured security" for the "full range" of threats; the reality is they cannot afford the price of trying to defend, deter and contain everywhere—it is that simple! Trying to spread their limited dollars and euros around—particularly with the budget crises in Portugal, Spain, and Greece—to cover the "full range" of threats will at best provide a very thin covering. Further, as military strategists learned many years ago, to defend everywhere is to defend nowhere. Even so, this appears to be what the GoE is advocating.

NATO has accomplished much in the last two decades on three continents, but in doing so, it has also developed a lack of trust and confidence among its members as each judges differently its fellow members’ contribution of resources to these varied security activities. The idea of writing a Strategic Concept to provide a sound transatlantic consensus regarding NATO’s roles and missions could go far in rebuilding this trust as it would help prioritize the allocation of resources. However, to leave the purpose vaguely defined as is the term "assured security" and to assume that the alliance can defend against the open-ended list of threats embodied in the phrase "full range" of threats, condemns NATO to trying to defend everywhere and ultimately defending nowhere. NATO can ill afford to keep jumping into event after event, without the reality of agreed support and resourcing. To stem growing atrophy, the alliance needs a clearly defined, realistic and attainable purpose to focus efforts and avoid inevitable mission failure. Unfortunately, the Group of Experts’ report did not provide this clarity.